Have you heard this story?

Have you heard this story?

Review of Empire of Chains by Ryan D. Mueller

 

Was John Steinbeck fantasy adventure fiction’s greatest fanboy?  His first novel, Cup of Gold, is a straight forward-pirate adventure that is also a retelling of the adventures of Captain Morgan (the English pirate they named the rum after).   Towards the end of his life Steinbeck finally began working on his life’s obsession: the legend of King Arthur. Steinbeck spent the last decades of his life re-writing and retelling Thomas Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur.  He never finished the work.  What classifies Steinbeck’s first and last works as fanboy efforts are that they are not original works, but the result of enthusiasm that has been driven to imitation.  Unlike other Steinbeck works, that were inspired by real life events around him, Steinbeck’s first and last works were extensions of the fiction and historical tales that he loved.  I assert that is what separates the fan from the fanboy;  the fan enjoys the media, the fanboy uses the media as a launch pad for his own ideas.  While some (Goethe) might dismiss genre works or fan fiction as coarse emulation, I think Steinbeck is proof that purposely derivative works can still be art.

 

Ryan W. Mueller’s book Empire of Chains (2017 available through Amazon) is an attempt to recreate the classic high fantasy epic. Mueller describes his book (at www.sffworld.com) as

 

“an epic fantasy for people who miss classic epic fantasy…I set out with the intention of giving fantasy readers a lot of those comfortable elements. They're the kinds of stories I still have a soft spot for. It's full of action, and I think I did an interesting twist on the dark lord trope.” 

 

Mueller is obviously an enthusiastic fan of the genre, and we can all understand his desire to appreciate fantasy fiction by contributing to it.  Mueller’s story is boiler plate stuff.  The evil emperor executes the mother of a teenage noble because the mom was plotting to over throw the emperor.  She was guilty, no argument there.  But the daughter of the dead woman grows into adulthood bent on revenge.  Through careful research in her castle’s library, when she isn’t practicing archery or sword play with the castle guards, the young noble woman (Nadia) learns of a spell that can kill the Emperor. He is not the kind of emperor that can be taken out by a rotted piece of horse flesh or a stray arrow to the eye.  The Emperor killing spell is called “White Fire” and to cast the spell she needs to obtain three scrolls. She eventually pulls everyone she meets and knows into this quest.

 

The interesting hook in Mueller’s story is that evil emperor knows of Nadia’s plan and indeed wants Nadia to carry out.  The emperor can “read the webs of fate” and he can see all (or most) possible futures.  It is the emperor that is indirectly guiding Nadia and her crew.  He pushes them to pursue his assassination and tries his best to protect them while they are doing it.  The Emperor believes that everything he is doing is for the greater good of humanity and he tells himself that this cruel overlord shtick is nothing more than an act and that deep down he is a good guy. This also provides a wonderful parallel to Nadia's journey, because like the evil Emperor she is willing to make sacrifices and hurt people for the greater good.   It is a wonderfully interesting premise. I only wish Mueller was able to write prose as interesting as his premise, and that he'd been able to bring his novel to a satisfactory conclusion.

 

Mueller takes a number of risks with his writing, which do succeed in making the writing style different than other epic fantasy novels but ultimately undercut his story.  First, most of his story is told through dialog and Mueller has no talent for dialog or any sense of the pacing of speech.  The characters in Empire of Chains talk as if they are in a bad radio play and lampshade all their actions.  For example, when one character is hiding in a closet he over hears the guards outside talking to each other aloud about whether or not they are going to search the closet.  A character falls off a bridge into rushing water and the other characters have to time argue before jumping in after.  The characters are always speaking aloud their entire litany of feelings and their own personal logic.   Consider the following excerpt.

 

“Oh, it’s nothing,” Danica said. “I just don’t care for the thought of spending so long in dark cave. Not that there is anything to do about it. I just have to approach it with the best attitude possible.”    

 

While the character of Danica most resembles a summer camp song leader in attitudes and platitudes all the characters speak in essentially the same manner.  When given the choice of being subtle or overtly explaining something, Mueller’s characters always go the overt route.  The content of the conversations is also redundant.  In almost every chapter Nadia tells people “that she is going to kill the Emperor.”

 

In addition to being repetitive and clumsy with dialog, Mueller also doesn’t risk a large vocabulary in his writing.  I understand the desire and the need to cut back on the use of purple prose in fantasy fiction, but Mueller writes at close to a fifth-grade level.  Furthermore, he uses a lot of modern colloquialisms. For example, character’s don’t run away they “take off”.  It might be acceptable if the narrator had a voice that justified this, but there is no strong voice to the prose. Everything is written in a tight third person that switches between the main characters.

 

Finally, I personally disliked the top down view and tell-not-show use of meta-vocabulary Mueller and his characters employ to describe things.  When discussing a story or a video game, I might use the terms quest, party, hero or monster, but I don’t use them to describe my day-to-day life. Remember Mueller’s character communicate in very modern English. There is a town that is literally terrorized by something referred to only as ‘a monster’, and when describing a transcontinental cave system the guide says ‘there will be monsters’. Fans of fantasy know that a monster is scarier and more monstrous when it has a name. Mueller describes his world from a fantasy fan's view point using a modern genre fan's vocabulary.  The use of generic and repetitive words makes the world feel flat and poorly thought-out.  In one particular paragraph, I noted every sentence had the word hero in it.  Mueller should come up with proper names for his monsters and crack out a thesaurus from time to time.

 

There are more things that disappointed in this book. The ending was anti-climatic and poorly paced. The two main characters got shallower as the book went on and not deeper.  Halfway through the book, God shows up and the characters start having discussions about how to maintain faith in an absent God in a cruel world.  The role of religion and faith in this world had not been explored and comes out of left field.  There were many pointless descriptions of combat and tangents the lead nowhere. I think Nadia actually ran away from home three times and then went home again to have the same conversation with her father. The book is overlong. It was not a fun book to read. I lower my bar for self-published works, but this one was a chore. I pushed through so I could leave an honest review.

 

Steinbeck said of the Le Morte de Arthur, that he didn’t care as much for the content of the book as much as he loved the language.  The book was beautifully written in his opinion but it didn’t do the characters in these epic stories justice.  In Steinbeck’s retelling of the Arthurian legend, he puts that right. Mueller’s story suffers from the opposite problem; there is are interesting ideas in the Empire of Chains, but the author didn’t care about the art of writing enough to give us prose or characters that pop off the page.  Like Mallory’s Le Morte de Arthur, Empire of Chains gives us lots of battles but not enough character (ironic considering how much dialog there is). I hope someday Empire of Chains will get the fanboy treatment and we finally get an exploration of this corrupted, clairvoyant and well-meaning Emperor.  I believe Mueller has a good story to tell, but I think he will need somebody else to do the telling.

Bad choices

 

Review of Nanotech Deliverance by Evan D. Hirson

 

Looking for Old Reviews? Check the Link at the Bottom of the Page.

 

I use to work next door to a neuroscience lab (I was doing infectious disease research). The scientists in that lab studied the cognition of reality by placing nanofibers into individual neurons in the brain. Using this system, which was apparently quite comfortable once you got use to it, the researchers could predict what a subject was going to see (in terms of the perceived object’s spatial relation to the subject) before the subject had physically responded to stimuli. In short, your brain already knew what you were going to see before you looked at it. What surprised me most about this research was how cavalier all these young scientists were about the results.  I am not a neuroscientist, so I didn’t try to refute their findings, but this brought up all kinds of questions for me about choice and the nature of reality.  If my neurons are conspiring to create a perception of reality before light even hit my retinas than how can I make true choices?   

 

Nanotechnology and choice are two of the topics I had to wrestle with when reading Evan D. Hirson’s science fiction novel Nanotech Deliverance (published in 2016, available through Amazon). Hirson’s work is an account of a few months in the life of a young man named Russell. Russell is living in a near future time in which people still have motorcycles, snow still falls in New York and the headlines are still dominated by the acts of war and terrorism.  But according to Russell it is not all bad though because there are jetpacks.  One day Russell comes home to find his best friend, a maternal middle-aged neighbor, being interrogated by a couple of government types in black suits.  In short order Russell learns that the black suits are part of an international organization aimed at stamping out a covert alien invasion (I am giving little away here. This is revealed in the first 10% of the book). The extraterrestrials outwardly appear human and indeed his middle-aged neighbor/best friend is on of those aliens. But unlike the malign otherworlders that are seeking to enslave humanity, Russell’s neighbor is a good egg.  After a couple of violent encounters with ‘gang members’ Russ and his friend prove their worth and join forces with the anti-alien task force.  Russ’s admission to the multinational men-in-black task force is a fortuitous turn for humanity, because it turns out that Russ has a special quality that makes him the key to defeating the alien menace. What is Russ’s special quality? He has a deep well of inner rage that when properly channeled and augment makes him almost invincible.

 

As I read the book though I wasn’t sold on Russell’s emotional depth or his inner struggles with anger and control.  Part of the reason for this lack of connection is that Hirson makes a lot of risky choices in his style of writing. Most of the book is written in a tight third person in which the setting is described in line with Russell’s own opinions and thoughts. For example, one of those initial black suits is a woman of Japanese descent who is one “of the most beautiful Orientals he’d ever seen” and is later described in the narration as the “Japanese bombshell” or a “contemporary female samurai”.   However, there are events and exchanges when Russell will suddenly leave the page and we are suddenly in a limbo of perspective. This makes the voice of the novel unclear. Another risk that Hirson takes is to name characters and refer to recollections that are never explored.  Russell thinks to himself that he should contact Josh, the only friend from his youth, but Josh is never mentioned again.  The tattooed ‘gang member’ Sean passes by on a motorcycle but is never mentioned again.  The setting is also introduced slowly and clumsily. It is not until I was half way through the book that I realized most of it was happening in Western Australia.

 

Then there are the tangents. There is a silly chapter in which Russ battles ‘terrorists’ that has nothing to do with the larger plot.  Characters, such as Nathan, are mentioned by name and given actions without any previous introduction.  Hirson’s writing choices are also challenging; paragraphs often have no clear subject and he is willing to risk a sentence fragment or two. Yet the writing style has a kinetic energy that helped me push past the tangents, and the rapid changes in perspective.  While the prose isn’t art, it is enthusiastic and that enthusiasm comes through the text.

 

But Nanotech Deliverance is science fiction.  As Kurt Vonnegut told us, a science fiction fan will forgive a lot of poor prose if the ideas explored in the text are strong and engaging. Nanotech Deliverance does have a lot of interesting and compelling science fiction concepts. Unfortunately, Hirson wastes every concept introduced in the novel so that he can focus on the Mary Sue character that is Russell. For example, the aliens have a  device called the pyschotramua machine. This device is making humans more violent and is the cause for the increasing violence in the world.  There are a lot of things that could be explored with narrative construct like this.  Are the ‘terrorists’ and ‘gang members’ still morally responsible for their actions?  Are the main character’s being altered by this device? Can you have any trust in others or yourself when this device exists? These questions are not explored. By the end of the book the device is irrelevant to the plot. 

 

There is also the titular nanotechnology. These microscopic pieces of alien hardware are injected into our heroes and the devices give them super strength, longer life and super intelligence.  This is another interesting narrative device that could be used to explore self and choice or at least there could be some ambiguity as to whether the nanobots are even a force for good. But Hirson doesn’t spend any time on any of these questions.  All the nanobots do is make the good guys super strong, with Russell being the strongest one.

 

There is also a ‘second brain’ that the aliens have in which they retain racial memories.  Another fantastic concept wasted by Hirson.  How does having racial memories change your sense of self?  Not really explored, the racial memories are just an excuse for information dumps. 

 

Okay so Nanotech Deliverance is not well written and it is not a thinking person’s science fiction story. Is it a fun adventure story? There is a global conspiracy trying to take over the world and Hirson could have used this plot to write a jet setting spy novel. He didn’t. There is a trip to New York and one to Eastern Australia, but those are trips in name only. Most of the novel takes place in the HQ, a dormitory like building where all the characters live, work, and eat together in a cafeteria.

 

The most surprising part of Hirson’s novel was what he chose to focus on instead of science fiction or suspense. The major theme of the novel is rationalization and vindication, specifically rationalization and vindication of Russell’s actions and behavior. Through out the novel the characters will revisit Russell’s actions, and explain those actions until it is clear that he made the best decision possible and anybody who doubted his wisdom or ability was mistaken.  Even during the climatic battle one of the minor characters takes the Doubting Thomas character aside and explains how everything Russell is doing is right and justified. One could assume that Hirson doesn’t trust his readers to reach the “correct” conclusion about his character. But I don’t think that is it. I think this pattern of misinterpretation, underestimation and misjudgment of character is what Hirson wants to explore with his writing. As the novel progresses, the character of Mayu (the female agent of Japanese descent) starts to act solely as a source of these misjudgments regarding Russell, and other character’s have to explain to her that he isn’t sexist, reckless, or dangerous. All of Mayu’s Cassandra-esque predictions turn out to be false and the conclusion of the novel is Mayu realizing Russell’s true merit.     

 

The problem with the ending is that we never see Russell’s true merit.  Hirson is in too much of a hurry to get his character into the action and we don’t learn what Russell is like before his world gets turned upside down.  Almost everything we learn about Russell is told to us and not shown.  Character growth should be about choices, but I not sure Hirson believes in choice.  In Russell’s world there is one right answer and thus one right choice. However, because of the sloppy prose, the undeveloped ideas and the book’s obsession with analyzing itself, I am afraid that reading Nanotech Deliverance was the wrong choice.    

 

Do Birds Cry?

 

Reviews of "London Calling" by Philip A. Suggars and "Kakashi & Crow" by Megan Fennell

 

 

Does turning into a bird ever help? This question has had long legs in modern speculative fiction. Merlin turned T.H. White’s young King Arthur into a bird in an effort to impart some wisdom.  The lessons of polymorphism were so difficult and opaque that T.H. White wrote a whole other book revisiting Merlin’s shape-shifting lessons in an attempt to redeem Arthur (The Book of Merlin, published posthumously in 1977). Ged, The Wizard of Earth Sea, would turn into a hawk occasionally, but he also got stuck in bird form. So he learned to avoid turning into a bird.  In the first issue of "Excursions from the Citadel" our flagship story, “Winged Migration” dealt with this very question of giving up your arms for wings.  Therefore,  I ask you, why have these ornithological transformation been such a stalwart part of fantasy literature?  Is there a common theme to the use of these bird morphs in storytelling?

 

The two stories I am reviewing today look very similar when the setting and facts of the story are reviewed. Both stories are modern fantasy tales that presume that there is a fey world of the supernatural beings existing just beneath the surface of our present day reality. Both the main characters are loners that start the story without a strong connection to any present day person or institution, and of course, both of the main characters turn into birds. 

 

“London Calling” by Phillip A. Suggars was published in the February 20th issue of Strange Horizons.   The story imagines that London itself is a supernatural entity with a voice, and desires beyond being a densely populated city.  London wants to see the ocean. So Suggars’s London reaches out, or calls out, to whoever is listening. The only person to answer London’s call is a young woman named Ingrid.  We are introduced to Ingrid as follows.

 

“Ingrid swayed on the ledge of the tower blocks roof with her back to the drop, her arms outstretched and her eyes shut. The concrete crackled under her boots. Vertigo tickled the pit of her stomach and she sensed the ground, patient and hungry far below.

 

The overwhelming compulsion to jump jellied her legs. For an instant she imagined herself spinning downwards end over end, her toes and fingertips tingling, terrified and ecstatic, plummeting towards that final concrete kiss.

 

For me, those two paragraphs efficiently set the tone for the story and the author stays true to that theme. This is a tale of despair.  As we learn more of Ingrid, we learn of a recent tragedy in her life.  Ingrid’s sister had taken her own life, either deliberately or in an accident involving self-mutilation.  Overflowing with grief and guilt Ingrid makes a deal with London; London will take away her humanity and her pain and she will give London her vitality.  To put it another way, Ingrid is so stricken with grief that she would rather melt into the floor or become one with a stone than continue to feel the pain of living.   But rather than turn her into a stone as she hopes, the city transforms her into a bird. 

 

Suggars’s story is only 3000 words, light on plot, but thematically heavy.  It deals with bullying, self-mutilation, suicide, self-esteem issues, family, the geography of London and other complicated topics.  The writing is almost like poetry.  The paragraphs are short.  The story jumps back and forth in time as Ingrid deals with the present and reflects on the past.  Several times images or events are described and we are left to infer what those events meant to Ingrid.

 

I started reading Strange Horizons (S.H.) in about 2007 or 2008, and I would say “London Calling” is a fair representation of the type of fiction that S.H. prefers to publish.   I believe that the editors at S.H. seek fiction that first and foremost has something to say about the world today.  Typical stories deal with topics such as gender identity, sexuality, child abuse, colonialism, racism or mental health issues.   Moreover, S.H. often turns away from traditional storytelling and seeks novel approaches to laying out a story. 

 

An example of more traditional storytelling can be found in Megan Fennell’s “Kakashi & Crow” which was published in 2015 as part of the “Scarecrow” anthology.  “Scarecrow” is the third in a series of speculative anthologies edited by Rhonda Parrish.  Parrish’s anthologies feature collections of short stories all tied to a single theme. Parrish appears have a preference for Canadian writers and women writers.  (Two groups which I am sure could use more exposure).

 

Fennell’s short story is an unapologeticly entertaining tale that takes the basic dynamic of the odd couple and applies that relationship to extensions of Japanese folklore. Fennell imagines that in modern times there are still immortal shape-shifting animal spirits inhabiting the world.  The hero of Fennell’s story is one such immortal animal spirit.  We are introduced to the roguish Crow as he lays in a jail cell dreaming about his time flying over Elis Island in 1907.  It is a solid introduction to the character, and to the irreverent and restless voice that guides us through the story.

 

Crow has abilities typical of a fantasy hero.  Aside from the ability turn into a small flock of crows, Crow can read minds and scry the future.  It is because of these talents that our other hero, Kakashi, bails Crow out of jail.  Kakashi is also an immortal; a scarecrow built by the ancient humans to protect humanity’s crops and homes from the animal spirits.  Crow and Kakashi have a long history, which Crow describes as a long history of him being beaten and chased by Kakashi.

 

Kakashi is a humorless, expressionless character who is duty bound to protect humanity from those that seek to exploit humanity (like Crow). But unfortunately for the Scarecrows the world has changed. Humanity now has technology that protects the crops far better than magical men.  The existence of these magical beings is a secret, and protecting humanity from that secret is Kakashi’s current task.   The current threat to that secret is another Scarecrow that has gone insane and is openly murdering other magical beings.

 

You can imagine where the story goes from there.  The laconic and straight-as-an-arrow Kakashi must team up with his old rival, the glib and self-serving Crow. Can the two put aside their differences, learn to trust each other and defeat the villain? I think they remake this movie every year, and I think I watch it every year. 

 

So do we have an answer? Does turning into a bird ever help?  Well, it may never help the character but it appears to help the storytellers.  In “London Calling” and “Kakashi & Crow” we have two very different stories told for very different reasons, but they use very similar toolkits.  One may find it hard to believe that these two stories would appeal to the same audience, and one may also argue that these two stories are representative of the current divides in the speculative fiction community. 

 

But I do see a strong similarity in the stories and suggest you read them both. Suggars’s story is an exploration of pain and recovery.  He uses the bird to represent hope and a visceral pleasure in living.  Fennell’s story is a pure piece of genre entertainment, but she also uses the bird to represent certain emotions.   Fennell’s birds embody chaos, freedom, and a visceral pleasure in living.  So perhaps that what why authors turn their characters into birds, the transformation allows the characters to be free, detached and in the moment.  Both Suggars and Fennel would agree that being free as a bird is a better place to be than standing on the edge of a building lost in your own pain.

Old Reviews

What we talk about when we talk about killing.

Reviews of “We Hit Back” by Sean Patrick Hazlett and “Battle Lines” by J.W. Alden

 

Looking for Old Reviews? Check the Link at the Bottom of the Page.

 

There is a terrific hook in the opening of Sean Patrick Hazlett’s story “We Hit Back” (Abyss and Apex, 2017, Issue 61, Q1).  “We Hit Back” begins with the classic description of American corporate hubris; an executive sits comfortably in his office, on his television are images of horrific violence a world away and the executive’s response is to see an opportunity for financial gain. On cue the executive’s, his name is Lionel, world comes crashing down.  Lionel receives a phone call from his son who is being held hostage by cyber terrorists. The unseen attackers have hacked Lionel’s son’s car and are driving the 20-year boy at high speeds down the San Francisco freeway.  I love the way Hazlett presented and unpacked these events, the entire episode is almost entirely dialog. Lionel talks to his son, talks to his co-workers and the police as he tries to save his son. By using dialog to move the events Hazlett lays out Lionel’s character while staying focused on the action.  From the subtext alone we learn that Lionel is a pragmatic, disciplined man of action who responds quickly and decisively to threats.  The opening is an engaging and tightly written piece of prose. Perhaps Hazlett should have stopped there.

After the attack on his son, Lionel decides that cyber security needs to be proactive.  He proposes a system whereby the forces of corporate America (with government approval) will actively hunt down the cyber criminals and hacktivists of the world.  Again these events are unpacked via dialog during a boardroom exchange in which the moral pitfalls and dangers of Lionel’s plans are debated.  Have you ever read or seen a sci-fi yarn where the morality of technology is debated and the people come to the right decision?

Of course, Lionel starts a quest for cyber vengeance. He assembles his hunter-killer teams, brushes off the ACLU and catches a cat burglar who uses the Internet to case the houses of the wealthy.  Hazlett’s story begins to ramble at this point.   One of Lionel’s colleagues goes rogue and uses Lionel’s cyber-infrastructure to flame armed conflict between China and Russia.  Lionel maintains his moral standing by running a sting on the amoral colleague and finally catching his son’s attacker.  

It is the final confrontation with his son’s attacker that undermines the whole story.  In a narrative that has been built on Lionel’s conversation with others, the climax awkwardly moves away from Lionel to a conversation between a hacker not previously named in the story and a talk show host. Lionel’s revenge is presented as an ego stroking fantasy.  Lionel is addressing an audience that cheers in approval when he screams “We Hit Back”, and then Lionel directs their attention to a monitor so he and the audience (that includes the readers) can watch the story together. Not only is this out of step with the rest of the story, but the climax that follows is unsatisfying.

Lionel’s revenge is not an intelligent moral reckoning or even an emotionally cathartic exchange between a father and the man that attacked his son. Lionel’s revenge essentially amounts to “punking” the hacker.  The hacker is brought on to a talk show under false pretenses. The hacker is insulted in front of a crowd of strangers and everyone is shown embarrassing pictures of the hacker in his underwear. It is a juvenile and disappointing ending to a story that started out very well.

In the extremely short story “Battle Lines” by J.W. Alden (Fantasy Scroll Magazine, 2016, Issue #11) we also have a man wrestling with the morality of being in a mortal struggle with other human beings in a confined area.  Where Hazlett used the interconnectedness of the on-line world to push his characters together, Alden’s characters are locked together on a spaceship.  Also like Hazlett’s story, the central conflict comes not from the attempts by the characters to best their opponents, but from the moral consequences of those attempts.  Finally, Alden also uses dialog, subtext and the reader’s intuition to unpack the story.  

“Battle Lines” opens with a confusing description of a character in a moment of contemplative joy, but we soon learn that those events were a dream and the character’s reality is a tight gray room.  Opening with a dream is generally a trite start, but here it works as describing the characters as Earthmen who rather be somewhere else and have interests well beyond killing one another. The rest of the story plays out as a conversation between two antagonists who are duty bound to kill each other but have no emotional desire to do so. The resolution comes not from learning who kills whom, but whether or not they are going to try.

Short fiction and poetry editor Lorin Stein recently said in an interview with comedian Aparna Nancherla that he believes “most fiction starts with two people in a room”. The sought-after editor then lamented that many authors choose to keep the action in one character’s head. I can see why some writers might find it difficult to move a story forward with interpersonal dialog.  The writers must be forced to consider and imagine the internal mind of each character, and then express that mind via the imperfect piece of the iceberg that is the spoken word.  As readers, dialog driven stories require more work because we are not only reading the words but we are reading the subtext. I was impressed with how both stories I reviewed today used dialog to unpack the events, build up characters and explore conflicts. While “We Hit Back” could have been a tighter story and more thoughtful story, I enjoyed the approach both writers took to storytelling and look forward to more from them in the future.

Old Review

"Something Insidious and Natural"

 

Reviews of "Keeper of the Plains" by Allison Wall and "The Cold Side of the Island" by Kali Wallace

 

 

 

If I am lucky enough to have your attention than I can be fairly certain of two things. First, you are likely reading this on a computer and second, you are familiar with the three basic types of conflict in fiction. Miss Rutherford, my sixth grade English teacher, explained these basic conflicts in each plot as either: man vs man, man vs himself or man vs nature.   In speculative fiction, this last point can be widely varied because our protagonists don’t only come into conflict with nature, but they also must wrestle with the supernatural. In the two worthy short stories I am reviewing herein, we have characters that come into conflict with both the natural world and the supernatural world.  In both cases, it is the natural world that is more insidious.

 

“The Keeper of the Plains” by Allison Wall (Aphelion Webzine, August 2016) and “The Cold Side of the Island” by Kali Wallace (Asimov’s, December 2016) are both stories which describe a meeting of nature and the supernatural.  What I enjoyed most about both stories and what linked the two stories for me was how the authors envisioned nature.  Both authors describe nature, not as some distant wilderness like the Yukon or Walden Pond, but they find nature just over a guardrail or in the stand of woods behind a grocery store.  The wild, for both Wall and Wallace, is in walking distance of your house and just over a fence. The two authors also succeed in describing small patches of urban or suburban wilderness with a sense of something greater; magical wonder as in Wall’s story or a gothic sense of dread as on Wallace’s island.

 

Though I loathe admitting it, I spend most of my time in safe heated rooms with electricity, wi-fi and maybe a domesticated animal or two. I often feel in control of my environment and all this impressive technology doesn’t feel magical, it feels mundane. But when I walk away from the pavement, the house and the artificial lights my inner child expects to find something fantastic in nature.  If you are a fan of speculative fiction, ghost stories, and mythology than I bet your inner child also expects to find something magical in the woods.  The heroines of both stories succeed in encountering something magical in those little patches of wilderness that are just over the bridge or behind the coffee shops.

 

Of course, we all know this feeling of disconnect with nature is an illusion or at best temporary.  Nature can assert itself at any time, and Wall and Wallace recognize the ultimate supremacy of nature. In the two stories, it is nature that is the villain. Nature is cancer, nature is a tornado, nature is a snowstorm, nature is aging and nature is not having control over your world.  As Wallace puts it, nature is insidious. So in a world with both the supernatural and the natural what does the supernatural have to offer us?

 

Allison Wall has imagined an America where wizards are pseudo-celebrities who stand at the intersection of humanity and nature. In Witchita Kansas, where Wall’s story takes place, there is a joining of the big and little Arkansas river and at that location resides the titular wizard, the Keeper of the Plains.  The Keeper is a wizard who’s job it is to untangle ‘disparate energies’.  He explains his job this way,

 

"You find 'em (disparate energies) where two things meet. Where the wind meets the clouds. Where the rain meets the earth."…"Where one river meets another. Hot, cold. Earth, sky. Wind, rain, but you can pull them apart, run 'em through you, use their energies. Harvest, harness."

 

But while he claims to be able to untangle the forces of nature the Keeper does have his limitations.  He is scruffy, basically homeless, smokes, gets drunk before noon and has trouble paying for a cup of coffee. (So your typical hipster with artistic pretenses). This trouble paying for a cup of coffee is what brings him into the story, as he is forced to leave an I-O-U on a napkin for a barista at a trendy coffee shop.

 

The barista, named Olivia, is the main character of the story and Olivia’s struggles drive the story forward.  Olivia’s mother has a stage 4 lymphoma, terminal cancer, and Olivia has an I-O-U from a scruffy, hard drinking homeless-looking man who people call a wizard. The conflict comes not from whether or not the wizard can cure Olivia’s mother, but whether or not Olivia will bring herself to hope that the Keeper of the Plains will cure her mother.

 

In the “Cold Side of the Island” we also have a woman coping with an ailing mother, and who has an encounter with a supernatural force in the pockets wilderness that exist alongside coffee bars, gas stations, and our backyards.  Whereas Olivia encountered the supernatural at the confluence of rivers on the other side of a guardrail, Lacie (Wallace’s protagonist) encountered a subtlety supernatural being in the forests on the unpopulated side of the New England island on which she grew up.  

 

Where Olivia was being forced into independent adulthood.  Lacie is moving into middle age.  Lacie's story begins with her getting stuck in a snowstorm while trying to drive home for the funeral of a High School friend. The death of this friend had further meaning because this friend had shared in Lacie’s encounter with the otherworldly being. Without wanting to give anything away, I believe that Wallace’s story falls squarely into the gothic tradition of storytelling. All the events in “The Cold Side of Island” are tinged with supernatural menace.  But as in “The Keeper of the Plains” the true danger in “The Cold Side of the Island” comes from time, aging and disease.  In both stories, the supernatural represents hope and the promise of a larger world, and in both stories, the characters are unable to escape reality. 

 

What drew me into the stories, and why I recommend them both, were the careful descriptions of the settings and how the authors used those descriptions to set the tone for the stories.  In “The Keeper of the Plains” spring is coming as are storms and thus the setting reflects what Olivia needs to accept: that time is moving forward and she can no longer avoid the tragedy in her own life.  In the “The Cold Side of Island” everything is frozen, claustrophobic, and hints of death.  For Lacie, the youth of summer, her encounter with the eldritch force, and the powerful sense of possibility and ambition that encountering the force imbued upon her is just something remembered.  The characters each learn that magic can’t keep out reality, but perhaps it can help one cope with it. 

 

 

Old Reviews

 

Coming out of Retirement

Review of "Detroit Hammersmith, Zero Gravity Toilet Repairman (retired)" and "Soldier of the Brell" 

 

 

Few stories could live up to the promise of the title of Suzanne Palmer’s story in the September 2016 issue of Analog.  “Detroit Hammersmith, Zero Gravity Toilet Repairman (Retired)” is practically a story by itself.  The title is so effective and communicative that when the first paragraph mentions how the maintenance crew of Aldruna station is “a competent lot” we’ve already got enough context to process that information.  By station we mean space and if there is a problem with the toilets on Aldruna it must be a major problem if it is going to bring Detroit Hammersmith out of retirement.  

 

As it turns out Aldruna is hosting some kind of galactic diplomatic conference, the fate of which is endangered by a cascading failure of the zero gravity toilets.  The problem is so severe and enigmatic that it pulls Detroit Hammersmith, Deet, out of retirement. Though he must admit he had nothing better to do.  The plot moves quickly from there as Deet finds out the source of the problem is tiny acid spitting frog-like aliens.  The origin of the frogs turns out to be a mystery of less than novel proportions. The suspects for planting the xeno-animals are a couple of rude diplomats and a petty and condescending bureaucrat.  The frogs though are more than just pests to Deet.  This plague of frogs doesn’t repulse Deet, but rather fills him with nostalgia for his days as a boy playing on rural Earth. (Of all the characters in the story the frogs are the most sympathetic.)  This being a science-fiction story, things end exactly as you would expect and Deet leaves the story as the new Ambassador to the frog home world of Bom.  

The story made me smile a few times while reading it, and the technophilic parts of the story covered some new ground for me.  (There is actually a lot of toilet repair in the story.)  But the plot, the twist, and the supporting characters were all obvious and more derivative than necessary. For example, that angry bullying bureaucrat, Biner, felt like he was just pulled out of the clip art file.   I personally thought Deet could have been given a bit more personality because in the end he maybe stoic, thoughtful and clever but he is never given a chance to be funny or more interesting than the problem at hand.   One trick the story does pull off is to inject a tone of a romantic naturalism into a tale that takes place entirely on a largely zero-G space station.

I enjoyed this story.  It wasn’t a mind-blowing sci-fi yarn and I didn’t rush out to share it with friends, but it was clever and competently told.  It takes an old sci-fi trope, the pests that are actually a misunderstood intelligence (this applies to at least 1 in 5 Star Trek episodes) and uses that as a platform to take us somewhere few sci-fi stories have dared to go before: the plumbing.    

Nobody in David Scholes novella Soldier of the Brell (2016 available on Amazon) uses the bathroom.  The forces at work in Soldier of the Brell have more important things to deal with than plumbing, diplomacy or nostalgic recollections of childhood that highlight how technology has distanced us from the simple wonder of nature.  Soldier of the Brell is the story of a battle between all-powerful forces of good and evil for control of the multiverse.

The story starts a long time ago with the destruction of the Brell.  The Brell are a benevolent race of hyper-technological humans that protect the Universe and hang out with Times Guardian.  (that is not a typo on my part, it is not Time’s Guardian, it is Times Guardian). They essentially rule the universe and protect the time stream.  How do we know this? Because the author tells us this is the case.  

The first chapter of the book is written in a biblical tone, not unlike the in between chapters in Alan Patton’s Cry, the Beloved Country or Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath.  In this first chapter, we are told how an evil force seduced the other intelligent races of the galaxy/universe to attack the Brell homeworld and wipe out the Brell.  The dark forces succeed in killing all the Brell except for one who escapes by moving forward in time with the goal of seeking revenge.  He is the only Brell to do this, the rest of the scattered survivors attempt to protect the distant colonies and allies that remain.  This single act of distinction is the only real suggestion that this character may have a personality beyond fearless heroics.  There is not a lot of character interaction in this story or characters period. I was about 25% of the way through this book before two characters actually have a conversation. It was stilted and unnatural, but they still talked.  And despite the overlong exposition, I was still willing to give the book a chance at this point. That was a mistake.  

I have never read anything like Soldier of the Brell before (all though it does share a lot of narrative themes with Netflix short Kung Fury; all be it without a sense of humor).  Soldier of the Brell is ostensibly an action/military sci-fi thriller with strong religious overtones.  Yet, there is very little sci-fi. Most the action occurs via conflicts between “God Power” and “ Residual Brell Power”.  Additionally, the action is horribly imagined and described.  Most of the battles consist of the super-powerful heroes expelling energy from their bodies/armor and destroying their enemies.  The good guys win because they are stronger.  They don’t outsmart the bad guy, they don’t have to grow as characters to defeat the bad guy, there is teamwork but it is only incidental, and they don’t sacrifice anything of relevance to beat the bad guy.  Thus, the defeat of the bad guy is meaningful only if we care about the good guys.

It is hard to care about the protagonists because they aren’t fully realized people. The only thing that brought me a little way into this story was that the final battle between the Soldier of the Brell kicks off on Alien occupied Earth. The closest we get to a real character is named Urrle and he is some sort of intergalactic mercenary (it is not really clear) that ends up on Alien occupied Earth (They are just called Aliens, there is not good an explanation even though they try). Urrle makes a quick tour of Earth’s surviving military units hiding out in the Falklands and Afghanistan, he makes a few cute comments and then opens a can of whoop-ass on the Aliens.  After Urrle enters the fight it is all galaxy wide salvos of Brell power and wholesale destruction of the bad guys.  Once Odin of Asgard comes out of retirement wielding Thor’s hammer, the bad guy doesn’t stand a chance.   Now you may be tempted to ask where did Odin come from? Don’t.  You should instead ask yourself why a retired plumber with an affection for frogs is a more compelling character and hero than a time traveling super-soldier and the all-father of Asgard?   

 
     

 

 

Old Reviews:

 

 Labored pains

 

Reviews of "Eden's Child" by Ron Lee and "Cause for A Haunting" by Patricia Strand

Eden’s Child (Amazon, 2016 by Ron Lee and edited by C. Griggs) tells four stories. First we get the story of Earth’s ecological apocalypse.  Then we get the story of two human teenagers on an extraterrestrial colony that is attacked by an unknown force.  Then we get a “Blue Lagoon” type survival story in which two teenagers are cut off from the rest of humanity and explore their sexuality while fighting against the odds for survival.  Finally there is a post-script story of how a loving and noble sacrifice can inspire a nation and melt the heart of a cold career woman.  Eden’s Child is science fiction with elements of horror and romance novels. Thus, it is to this book’s credit that it is original enough to defy a simple classification and provides a fairly unpredictable narrative. 

 

But Reading Eden’s Child is like watching a story die the death of a thousand cuts. No single choice made in this very short book damns it, but in the end the book accomplishes nothing. I want to call attention to four things about this short-book that brought it down.

 

First, the book lacks a literary theme and/or a consistent tone. There were a lot of opportunities for the author to develop a theme or tone in this work.  The characters spend most of their time in confined spaces, and confinement could have been an atheistic theme. The characters live in a post-apocalyptic civilization, and the tenuousness of human existence in the face of larger forces could have certainly been a theme.  But the prose doesn’t draw our focus to any specific threads of emotion or experience that could link the events in the book to one another.

 

Second, the book’s prose is rote, blunt and undescriptive.  When the main character is wrestling with his own mortality and the life of his child it is described thusly:

 

“ The sheer willpower was Herculian, …his body screamed inwardly for the water for himself.  His body got weaker and weaker.”

 

Instead of depicting events as details of sensation or perception the author presents the story as a list of facts.  The prose is just as flat as the characters.

 

The third problem is that characters are not fully realized. The characters are young. They are in love.  They are noble. Evertt is a problem solver and his companion Sara is agreeable. As for what is going on inside them: once Sara says a small prayer and at one point Evertt feels some perverse gratification that the disaster that befalls his space colony allows him to be Sara’s caretaker.  But those two sentences are about all we learn about their inner life aside from lust.  There is an argument for keeping characters somewhat blank.  Undeveloped characters might allow the reader to better assume the role of the character. Yet this tactic depends on there being some other compelling part of the story.

 

And there are numerous points in this story that could be compelling.  However, the fourth problem with this book is that the descriptions of the settings and the attention to the conflicts lack focus.  There are in-depth histories of objects and places in this book that have nothing to do with this story. For example, there is a firearm in the story.  The number of bullets it fires is described, when it was manufactured and how it works is all laid out.  The gun is never pointed at an enemy, the characters don’t contemplate suicide and the gun never comes into play.   The facts of moss-based agriculture are also described in more detail than necessary for the story, and we learn that Wil Smith is a poor employee. I am not opposed to tangents. Pontificating on these various pieces of world building could be useful if it fit or re-enforced a theme. But there is no theme and the tone is inconsistent.

 

The story does achieve a degree of unpredictability.  After I was a fourth of the way through the book I still was being surprised by events.  But by the end I came to feel that the dramatic changes were more a result of sloppy story telling than an ambitious author.  The story's complexity is poor substitute for depth. 

 

On a more personal level, I found that the portrayal of women and culture in this book was weak and out dated.  The main female character’s role is limit to a damsel in distress or an object of romantic fixation.   The events in this book take place over 100 hundred years in future and the surviving culture is disgustingly WASPish.  The cultural institutions of the extra-terrestrial colony are limited to a bowling alley and a movie theater where the colonists can enjoy a “night out”.   To reinforce the 1950s –esque suburban culture look no farther than the food the characters eat: PB and J’s, cereal and milk, bacon and eggs.  The author imagines a future in which men are still socially dominant and women stay home to make blueberry muffins.  Even though the President of the government is a single female,  the author makes a point to describe what a novelty her presidency is and spends more time on her appearance than he does on her policies, ideas or personal history.

 

Eden’s Child attempts to deal with the emotional and physical perils of childbirth, the complexity and uncertainty of romantic love and the fear of the truly unknown.  It fails to approach any of those in an emotionally or intellectually satisfying manner.  A story that succeeds in dealing with all these factors is “Cause for A Haunting” by Patricia Strand published in the April 2016 issue of Lightspeed magazine.   In Strand's excellent story a very pregnant newlywed woman moves into a house she believes to be haunted.  In just over 4000 words Strand conveys the doubt, fear and pain that comes with childbirth and tells us a complete and disturbing “ghost story”.  Strand’s protagonist, Kate, is similar to Lee’s female character Sara.  She is a victim in many ways and has an uneven power dynamic with her young husband.  But Kate is given emotional complexity, intelligence and introspection.  Kate also grows in strength as a character.  In both stories you have two people struggling for their child’s wellbeing. In both stories you have dramatic changes in plot, conflict and tone between beginning and end. In both stories terrible things happen to a young mother. But in Strand’s story you have a fully realized character that holds the story together and her growth is the arc of the story.

 

 

 

 

 

Old Reviews

First Judgement:

Reviews of "Even The Stars Know" by Tom Dovek and "The Kindness of Strangers" by Nancy kress

 

As of this writing, NASA, the Russian Academy of Science and SETI are investigating a “strong signal” from a star named HD164595 in the Hercules constellation (1). This star is about 95 light-years from earth.  The principle scientists working on this project are not yet making a conclusion, but Dr. Claudio Maccone claims that there is a 2x10^-4 probability of generating this signal from a known source of background radiation (2). When it comes to my own data I am happy with any a p-value of less than 0.05. Thus, the HD164585 signal be could the first lead in the discovery of an alien civilization. But an advanced civilization, because the energy it would take to produce a wave that could travel 95 light years with that strength would require technology and an energy source we do not currently possess (3).  

This is where the Sci-fi writers enter the picture.  Let the hardcore scientists entertain questions of power sources and the feasibility of moving those distance, the writers need to imagine what an encounter with an advanced race will be like.  Will these aliens be like H.G. Wells’s genocidal conquerors with weak immune systems, will aliens see humans as little more than pests squatting on valuable ore as L. Ron Hubbard imagined, or will our first encounter be with a down on his luck travel writer with a fish in his ear and towel under his arm. I’m hoping for the last scenario, even with the Vogons, because I'm unashamed about not finishing the first two books.  I did however recently read a story of humanities' first contact with an alien species.  The story is titled “Even the Stars Know”. This very short story is authored by Tim Dovek and is available on Amazon.

“Even the Stars Know” takes place on deep spaceship manned by a crew of five astronauts and a talkative supercomputer named Victer. (One aside, Victer is described as sounding like Ron Perlman.  While I like Ron Perlman, I have not envisioned a distant future when the phrase “sounds like Ron Perlman” is going to carry a lot meeting.)  The deep space shuttle Armstrong is humanities first interstellar journey. The shuttle encounters a large pyramid floating in space. After stopping in front of the pyramid the crew begins their investigations only to be knocked unconscious by a loud noise.  The crew wakes up an hour later some distance from the pyramid.  

Spoilers Follow

When they awaken, they are in their individual bunks and have no memory of what happened during the last hour.  The crew decides to backtrack towards the last known position of the giant pyramid.  It is on this return journey that things start to go bad for the crew.  First the computer, Victor, begins to act funny.  He starts talking about God and calling people by their first names. Then each crew member has a hallucination that exposes some inner psychological scar or repressed desire.  

Most of the hallucinations take the tone of a traditional gothic-style bodice ripper.  The second officer is confronted by a seductive and naked vision of his long-dead lover and his grief manifests when he “looks at the dark V between her thighs”.  He then recognizes that “He’d done things with her that he couldn’t imagine doing anyone else.”  From the context, we have to assume that this is a sexual reference.  He is not described as missing her laugh, her wit, or anything more than her body. Love is only sexual in this story and sex is dangerous in this story. In a later section, a member of the female crew encounters an unknown and aroused man in the sonic shower.  She shortly recognizes that this man has the voice of the computer Victor, but swoons anyway as she “…twine her hands into his hair and direct that glorious mouth where she wants it to be”.  The story paints female sexuality as a source of weakness.

Then after the five hallucinations are completed and one crewmember has committed suicide the aliens appear (Literally). They acknowledge that they were the source of the hallucinations and they are sorry cause they were just attempting to communicate.  They conclude that humanity is not ready for contact because of the flaws that each human suffers.  The alien then explicitly points out what should have been learned from each hallucination.  The aliens leave saying that perhaps they will meet again once the humans have grown up a bit.  

The story is effectively written, does move at a good clip and I was drawn into the story. However, once the story was finished I was left unsatisfied.  The ideas in the story were undeveloped and derivative, and the characters were weak.  The story is as much about being comfortable with one's own weakness as it is about first contact, but it does not address human failings in a meaningful way.  For example, the most complicated character kills himself rather than deal, and since the story ends after all the weakness is explored we don’t get to see much of a character evolution.  Furthermore, there is no real consideration on the part of the characters or the narrator that the aliens might be wrong about humanity.  However, to be fair to the aliens in this story, I found all the characters one-dimensional and the portrayal of women bordered on offensive. Perhaps we can forgive the judgmental aliens this once. These five people were not the best of humanity. If you do read the story, play a thought experiment and reverse the genders of Kimber and Chase.  I wager that you’ll find a male Kimber’s behavior inappropriate and bordering on sexual harassment.  

Finally, the conclusion of the story leaves several things unresolved.  We never find out why there is a lost hour.  We never find out if there is something up with the computer, and he is still talking about God in the end. (It is never good when the computer starts to have an existential crisis.)  I suggest you avoid "Even the Star Know".  But if you're gagging for a story about an isolated spaceship in which people are confronted by hallucinations of their long dead lovers, a creepy kid from their past or fire in space then you might give “Even the Stars Know” a chance or rent "Event Horizon".

However, if you do want a great piece of short fiction about first contact and human weakness I recommend Nancy Kress’s excellent short story “The Kindness of Strangers”. (Available in “The Best of Nancy Kress”).  In Kress’s story, a librarian is having a doomed affair with a married man when the aliens attack earth and start destroying entire cities at a time.  “The Kindness of Strangers” hits all the themes of “Even the Stars Know”: human weakness, personal truth, the need to be loved, and first contract with hyper-powerful judgmental aliens.  But Kress manages to do with just one character what Dovek couldn’t do with five.  Kress’s protagonist presents a mix of shame, need, and fear as the root of human self-deception, and Kress doesn’t need aliens to make that point.  But Kress does have aliens.  When Kress’s aliens confront the main character it is not used as an opportunity to bookend a tale of human weakness, but rather it is used to highlight human strength and dignity in the face of power.  

So if the intelligent aliens we finally meet are the type to stand in judgment of humanity, should we stand for that judgment? Tom Dovek's characters accept it. Nancy Kress's characters resist it.  What would Ron Perlman do?